Adoption of a trait based regulatory framework, rather than one based on technology, may enable genetically improved potatoes to be made available in the UK. This was discussed within an interview with Professor Jonathan Jones of TSL (The Sainsbury Laboratory)
Blight is a major disease of potatoes. Maris Piper, one of the most popular varieties of potato is susceptible to this fungal disease which is controlled by 15 -20 agrochemical sprays every year.
In 2016 approval was given for development of a blight-resistant variety of Maris Piper and this has resulted in PiperPlus. The new variety is resistance to late blight and also has additional qualities to reduce losses during storage.
However, under current regulations PiperPlus will not be available in UK supermarkets anytime soon as it is classified as genetically modified (GM). This terminology was adopted before some of the recent technologies were developed. So there is an argument that varieties that are enhanced with genes from species within the same genus – in this case the family Solanum – should be treated differently.
Professor Jones explains that the future of PiperPlus depends on the outcomes of a recent consultation on genetic technologies conducted by DEFRA.
He said: “These potatoes are currently classified as GM, making them unlikely to ever reach the UK market, not least because of the high cost associated with the current regulations.”
Cisgenetics is also powerful but has fewer ethical concerns
There is a chance that this may change. Secretary of State, George Eustice, said in his address to the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2021, ” However, what we have learned since that initial GM debate is that cisgenesis – where traits are moved within a species or genus of plant – is also powerful, but raises far fewer ethical or biological concerns”.
Professor Jones continues: “The adoption of a trait-based regulatory framework, rather than a technological one, would allow the benefits of each line to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
“Once any changes to the UK regulations have been made, it might take 5 year for lines like ours to become available for producers and consumers.
“It would then be important to ensure that each crop is properly labelled to enable consumer choice. In the case of PiperPlus, for example, it would be the choice between one line that requires spraying with a lot of agrochemicals and another that requires far fewer agrochemical applications.”